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"Safe" Space? Nunes, Trump Bring New Attention To 22nd Congressional District Race

Laura Tsutsui
Valley Public Radio
Campaign signs for 22nd Congressional District candidates occupy busy street corners in Clovis.

California's June Primary is around a month away, and some local races are starting to heat up. One of them is in a congressional district that hasn’t seen a close race in years, and now the 22nd Congressional District is drawing renewed national and local attention.

At an office in west Fresno, volunteers are calling registered Democrats. Some volunteers are seasoned voters, but this is the first election 18-year-old Ashley Davis will vote in. She and the other volunteers are spending the evening making calls for the Andrew Janz campaign with hopes that they flip the 22nd Congressional District from Republican to Democrat.

Political analysts say the likelihood of that happening is slim. The majority of registered voters are Republicans and the incumbent, Congressman Devin Nunes, has held the seat for 15 years. But for the first time, Nunes is up against a candidate with a strong ability to fundraise and historic trends that suggest Republican seats aren’t as safe as usual.

Kyle Kondik is the managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan newsletter published by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“I think we’re still trying to figure out how good of a campaign Janz is going to run. You know, fundraising is not everything. It's a good thing to have some money, but at the very least it's good for Democrats who have somebody who may be credible running in this district,” Kondik says. “I think Janz is doing his party a favor just by running this race and giving voters an actual alternative.”

Kondik says midterms often follow similar patterns: the party in power often loses seats, and an unpopular president can mean trouble for the party he represents.

Last week, Sabato’s Crystal Ball forecast for House races revised its rating for Nunes’ district. The district was considered “Safe Republican,” but now is rated “Likely Republican,” which is a step away from a confident win.

“I think the next big milestone that I'm looking at is the primary,” Kondik says. “Maybe if Nunes wins by a ton, maybe that would cause us to re-evaluate the other  way and move back to ‘Safe’.”

Kondik says it’s hard to make predictions about House races because there isn’t reliable polling to back it up. If District 22 follows the trends that suggest Republicans may end up losing seats this year, Nunes could be looking at a more competitive race than he’s used to. In the past, Nunes has relied on turning out the conservative base in his district. It encompasses most of North Fresno, all of Clovis, and curves around east Fresno to include Reedley, Visalia and Nunes’ hometown of Tulare.

So far, Democrat Andrew Janz has distinguished himself as the biggest threat. The Fresno County prosecutor has raised over a million dollars, which is much more than the other Democratic candidates, but still well under the two and a half million Nunes has raised. Other challengers in the race include Democrats Bobby Bliatout and Ricardo Franco, libertarian Bill Merryman, and Brian Carroll who is not affiliated with a party. Nunes is the only Republican running.

Fresno State political science professor Tom Holyoke says that any Democrat running for this seat has their work cut out for them.

“The district was essentially created to be a Republican district so, in many ways, it's natural for a Republican to represent it,” Holyoke says. “Andrew Janz and any Democrat is going to be swimming upstream.”

Holyoke says that Janz is certainly putting in the legwork. Janz has cleared a hurdle by fundraising so much, which can help with name recognition. But Holyoke says that’s not the only thing Janz is trying to leverage.

“I do get the impression that Andrew Janz has made some headway with this argument that Devin Nunes has become an absentee congressman,” says Holyoke. “That he just is not around in the district very often, he's not appearing at events, he’s not holding town meetings, he’s not held town meetings in years.”

Holyoke also says that Nunes may not benefit from the national attention he’s been getting lately, and some might consider him too close to the president.

“To an extent, this race is going to be about President Trump as much as it’s about anything. All of the house races are going to be about Trump,” says Holyoke. “The Democrats very much think they can run on a position of opposing President Trump.”

That association with the president could be a positive for some. I met some 22nd Congressional District Voters at the Clovis Rodeo Parade Saturday to ask what they think. ‘

Henry Espinoza is one Republican voter who isn’t a huge fan of Trump, but agrees with his policies.

“He wants to make America strong again and we've lost that to the world,” Espinoza says.

Espinoza lives in Nunes’ district, and he isn’t too bothered by his absence, or his close ties to the President.

Credit Laura Tsutsui / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Henry Espinoza is a voter in Congressman Devin Nunes's district. Espinoza says Nunes is doing good work.

“As long as he's doing his job in Washington, you know, that's what we pay him for,” says Espinoza. “His votes are what counts and his speaking of all these issues that pertain to this district. I haven't heard anything bad about his political agenda as far as character flaws, and I said everyone's got their character flaws, and you can't please everybody.”

Espinoza says that he and his wife just got their Voter Information Guides in the mail. They plan on reviewing them before they vote in the primary this June.

Despite the low probability the 22nd District’s congressman is a Democrat, there is the possibility that Democrats win enough seats to hold a majority in the House, which Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates at a 50-50 chance.

The primary election is June 5, and the top two congressional candidates in the 22nd District will compete for the seat this November.

Laura Tsutsui was a reporter and producer for Valley Public Radio. She joined the station in 2017 as a news intern, and later worked as a production assistant and weekend host. Laura covered local issues ranging from politics to housing, and produced the weekly news program Valley Edition. She left the station in November 2020.